In a powder blue kurta and olive green Nehru jacket, Abhijit Banerjee appears relaxed as he readies for the interview for his new book, Cooking To Save Your Life. Food is a topic close to his heart and cooking is an area where he lets his creativity run free. The book, divided into segments—he calls them chapters—such as soups, vegetables, meats and more, is meant for inventive home cooking. The recipes, which range from something as straightforward as street-style potatoes to the sublime Persian Baghali Polow and the complex Lady Baltimore, reflect his interest in food from across the globe. The intent is clear: Cook to impress your family and friends, or to seduce your date.
In a Zoom interview, the Nobel laureate talks about recipes as storytelling, his favourite wines, and applies the law of diminishing marginal utility to desserts. Edited excerpts:
Take us through your writing process.
About five years ago, I started writing the book, one dish at a time, for my brother-in-law, who wanted some recipes. But simply listing ingredients and instructions got too boring and I wanted to do something playful. What followed next was a brief introductory paragraph for each dish, with its own commentary (for instance, the recipe of a mutton soup named Khurdi begins with: “This is a wonderful ‘winter soup’ from Gujarat on the west coast of India, where, as far as I can tell, there is no winter, besides being a meat soup from an area that is very much the epicentre of vegetarianism in India”).
During the pandemic, the talented illustrator of my book, Cheyenne Olivier, and my publisher, Chiki Sarkar, pointed out that the book was missing any presence of me as a social scientist. I then added introductions that run about two-three pages before each chapter (for example, in the chapter about appetisers, a sentence from the introduction says: “My selection of hors d’oeuvres is inspired in part by the marketplaces of the world where the less affluent will often go for their occasional excitement”).
Playfulness is a theme that binds the abstract illustrations and your writing. Does it reflect in your approach to cooking as well?
I don’t think playful is the right word for my cooking; one could say it’s free and easy. In the last one-and-a-half years, several things would happen simultaneously while I tried to write and cook—phone calls, unfinished work, children trying to grab my attention and so on. If you are too intense about this process, it’s unlikely to be a pleasurable experience. Cooking isn’t something that you have to be overwrought about. We (Cheyenne and I) tried to send the signal to not be uptight about it. This is not high cuisine, and we are not doing a puja.
You have written that most culinary disasters come from either overconfidence or under-confidence. Can you give an example of each, drawn from your life?
My problem usually with cooking was overconfidence (I am overconfident often in many ways). I had invited a friend home and decided to make Bengali maacher jhol. I picked cod fish without understanding that it has high water content unsuitable for prolonged boiling. Long story short, I had not accounted for any part of what could go wrong. The cod disintegrated into pieces and turned into a kind of porridge which was truly disgusting. There are several such instances of overconfidence botching up my cooking. Let’s say I attempt to prepare three dishes simultaneously, while forgetting that the garlic will burn within 30 seconds and while rushing to fix it, the sesame seeds on the hot pan, which were supposed to be a toasty brown, have turned charred black. This is a constant challenge; often I want to finish cooking fast, do multiple dishes, and then overconfidence gets in the way.
You say ‘dal’ is India’s biggest contribution to the world, perhaps greater than zero and chess. Is that an ironic statement or hyperbole?
No (sharply). Somebody would have figured out zero, nobody’s figured out dal as the sheer variety of dals from all corners of India is astounding. You can eat just one meal with four kinds of dal, and maybe one with fish thrown in, like we do in Bengal. When I was growing up (in Bengal), mealtimes would have three types of dal—a bitter or tetor dal, a sweetish dal and a thin dal. And they would be accompanied by different chutneys and vegetables. That would be an amazing meal.
The book says you like a meal with a good story. What does that mean?
I think you will want to have a moment to explain why you put certain dishes together. Sometimes the story is political, sometimes it’s just a joke. I remember preparing a meal for friends with six types of souring agents used in India in six different dishes. There was fish cooked with raw mango, eggplant with amchur (dry mango powder), potatoes with tomatoes, meat flavoured with tamarind, vegetable stew cooked with kokum, and the dessert had yogurt. Lime was a seventh element used for drizzling over the fish. It turned into a story about culinary diversity.
The book is about cooking as commensality. So what do you make when you have to cook just for yourself?
I am very greedy (chuckles) and if I cook for myself, it’s usually Indian. My comfort food is dal and I build a meal which has some space for it. There could be meat or eggs and definitely some vegetables thrown in. It’s usually not followed by dessert because—I have said this in the book—what’s nice about desserts is that they accompany a celebratory moment.
The book has a section dedicated to pasta and another to rice. Why have you not written about breads?
I am not a great baker. Rolling and kneading dough (even if it’s roti) is fine work and bread-making requires precision. It’s the one area where I lack confidence because the margin of error is small and details like the concentration of water vapour in the air matter too. It stresses me out, whereas cooking is not stressful for me at all. At half a day’s notice, I can prepare dinner for 10 people without losing any sleep over it. But bread-making is a whole different ball game and I stay away from preparing dishes which have that level of precision.
You have mentioned in the book that Pinot is one of your favourite wines. What are the others?
I really like American cabernets as well as Pinot Noir from Oregon. Among French wines, I love reds from Burgundy and Rhone, for they have the slightest hint of sweetness, which is wonderful with a lot of food. I am more picky about whites but a vintage champagne can be incredible. As a tip, I would say one of the best underpriced wines in the world is Crémant from Alsace in France. These are champagne-like wines which come for a third of the price of champagne. They are well constructed, complex and excellent. We drank a lot of it in the pandemic, as it was important to celebrate small victories, and we would often pull out a bottle of Crémant.
In one of the introductions to a recipe clearly meant for a date night, you have written—Hasn’t she read your food blog? Do you have a food blog?
No, I would hate my life if I had to write a blog. Because to be able to do anything real time is hard for me. I would hate having to do something very regularly. For me, I want to be taken by whatever I am taken by at the moment.
So whose food writing do you follow?
If I were to pick one name, it would be Nik Sharma, who is quite good with Indian food, and I really like the food publication Serious Eats. I wouldn’t necessarily cook like them—they go for more precision than I can afford—but they write well while explaining why certain ingredients or cooking steps are important. I can make up my mind depending on whether the argument they are making is right or wrong. You know, I can’t follow a recipe with exacting instructions for there is fairly little time in hand and I want to finish cooking in an hour and a half. The recipes in my book are meant to be doable very fast and they reflect our lives, that we have other things to do. I don’t love recipes which have, say, 25 ingredients, with nobody explaining why I need them all, and often I simplify them to my taste. In a recipe like that (with 25 ingredients), I feel you can’t taste all the flavours. If you want to let the ingredients loose, you have to take some things out. Bengali cooking has a few spices and we just let them go. I think that’s a very powerful insight that you need to let the specific ingredients speak.
You have written that Madhur Jaffrey’s influence runs through the book. How so?
One thing I really admire about her is that she can take a mundane dish and show the world how delicious it can be. It’s the four-ingredient recipe with black chana that can be transformed into something marvellous. I think her dishes are great because she’s really confident about recreating recipes of whatever she ate as a child, including things which were simple, and she puts those in her cookbooks. To me, that is refreshing, rather than an incredibly fancy delicate dish. I learnt to make very many mundane dishes from all over Asia by reading her books. They are pretty simple ingredients and instructions, and the food just pops. Ideologically, she has been a big influence in this book.
Tagliata is the No.1 recipe in your cheat sheet. What are the second and third?
If I am completely under pressure, there’s the Moroccan Zaalouk. It cooks itself and at the end of it you get something marvellous. All it needs is coarsely chopped eggplant, tomatoes and some spices, dump them into the pot and let it cook. It’s brilliant because even if you pay no attention, it will be frying in the oil that you had put in at the beginning . The third dish would be Sundal. If you just plan ahead, the only thing you have to soak are the chickpeas. Even if you forget this step, place them in lightly salted water, bring it to a boil, turn off the flame, keep it covered for an hour and it will be cooked. Then mix in ground coconut, some spices, lime juice and you are done. This can be made while you are helping the children with their homework. These recipes are beautiful because they don’t demand much time but each turns out to be an extremely nice dish.
There’s a fourth suggestion too—turn to pastas. There are recipes with bacon, tuna and Gorgonzola, and each takes 10 minutes except for the time needed for the pasta water to boil. You could serve any of them with some salad that you tear up quickly and mix in with a dressing for a complete meal. Try the Cheyenne’s salad which can be done in 10 minutes.
What are your favourite desserts or mishtis?
In mishtis, I love the delicate sandeshes in Kolkata and a classic shor bhajja from Krishna Nagar in Nadia, West Bengal. Also, I truly like rich dark chocolate, and you can say I am a chocoholic.
Do you think the law of diminishing marginal utility applies to desserts?
Yes, but for some people it just diminishes after a long while. I, unfortunately, fall into this category.
What are you cooking for dinner tonight?
I am cooking a lot and all of these recipes are in the book. There’s Zaalouk, Cheyenne’s salad, pasta with fennel, chilled almond soup with grapes and panna cotta with black sesame. Chiki (my publisher) invited a bunch of food experts to come for dinner and we are going to try to impress them.
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